Pro-Life Student Group Files Suit Against Oklahoma State University

February 5, 2013

The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) announced last week that Cowboys for Life, a pro-life student organization, has filed a First Amendment suit against Oklahoma State University (OSU). The lawsuit, Cowboys for Life v. Sampson, filed on January 25 in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma, alleges that two OSU policies are unconstitutional and that the school engaged in viewpoint discrimination by restricting the group’s speech on campus.

According to the suit and a report in The Oklahoman, Cowboys for Life requested a space near the OSU student union to set up a pro-life display with materials provided by an outside organization, Justice For All, on October 24–26, 2012. OSU denied its request, citing concerns over “the declining condition of OSU’s three Library Lawns as of Spring 2012.” However, the Office of Campus Life had already approved several other events for the same space in the 2012–2013 school year, including an event during the same week as the group’s planned event—clear evidence of a double standard.

The group elected to cancel this display and move forward with two other planned events for the same week, a smaller display and a table at the “Chi-O Clock,” a highly-trafficked area where student organizations often set up tables and displays. These requests were approved, but a month before the events, OSU Director of Campus Life Brian Sampson, who is named in the suit, called a meeting with the group’s leadership and allegedly amended the approval to include several conditions: first, that he review any images that would be included in the display before the event; second, that the group create a “buffer zone” to warn potential viewers about “graphic” content with signs no less than 30 feet from the display; and third, that the group station current OSU students at every component of the display at all times, a requirement not mentioned in any OSU policy or enforced against any other group.

After the group sent Sampson a few representative images, the students received an email a week before the event notifying them that Sampson had revoked their permit to table at the Chi-O Clock and had instead assigned them a permit to table adjacent to the group’s smaller display. The suit also alleges that, during the event, OSU administrators, including Sampson and other members of the Office of Campus Life, prevented the Cowboys from distributing literature on foot or displaying a hand-held sign at the Chi-O Clock, warning them to contain all activities to their approved space within the “graphic” content signs.

The lawsuit also challenges two policies in the OSU Student Code of Conduct as facially unconstitutional: a “Distribution of Literature” policy that prohibits the distribution of anonymous literature and a “Use of Facilities and Grounds” policy, which requires that all outdoor events be approved in advance by the Office of Campus Life with no provisions for spontaneous or time-sensitive expression and no clear guidelines to limit administrators’ discretion to approve or deny events.

FIRE will be watching this case and will keep Torch readers apprised of any developments.